Values and Alignment

By Chris Chittenden

"It is easier to exemplify values than teach them."

…Theodore M. Hesburgh (b. 1917) US clergy and university administrator 

Recently, I was in a client's office and as sometimes happens I was waiting as he was late for our appointment due to another meeting. When I have time to sit in another person's space I am always interested in what they choose to put on their walls. When he arrived I asked him about what he had up and he spoke about the company values and then told his story of the lengthy conversations that had been held to arrive at them. In particular, he focused on one value in particular, "Integrity", and his assessment that the hours spent debating just what was meant by "Integrity" had been rather a waste of time as there were so many divergent views and no clear definition seemed to have been reached. It had also been the last time, in his recollection, that the definition of "Integrity" has been discussed. It seemed that in this particular organisation at least, they had been through a values creation exercise and that was pretty much the end of it.

Having witnessed a fair number of values exercises in my time, this seems to be a fairly common practice. It also seems to be based on a common assumption - when we establish our values, we have to get them right and everyone has to agree with them from the start. This assumption, which is based on the idea of value creation as a task, leads to a significant challenge in creating shared values as those involved are creating their definition of a value only from a theoretical perspective. The creation of values when seen as a task also lends itself to the approach that once they are created then the task is finished. Hence the lack of conversation about values in most organisations.

I would like to invite you to think of this in another way. Rather than thinking of values as being specifically defined, think about them as evolving through experience. Let me give you an example to explain what I mean. Let's say that we agree that "Integrity" is one of our values. In our last newsletter we defined "Integrity" as being the state of being whole and undiminished in relation to having a moral character and being true to our self. Now that is a fairly high level definition, which I would think most people could accept. However, as with all things, the devil is in the detail. If we are to take "Integrity" from a general concept into a shared understanding of what it means in a community of people then we have to refine just what "Integrity" means in the context of shared experiences.

This occurs through conversations when someone feels that there is a lack of integrity. This is a primary responsibility for a community or organisational leader who would be well served by having an eye to refining and bringing to life the group's values. Over time these conversations help shape the shared meaning of the group's values, and also allow people who join the community to understand what it means to be an integrated member of that community.

The key in all of this is to not see values as rigid but rather as evolving to encompass the experiences of those involved.

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© 2013 Chris Chittenden